City Charter Can Grant Fire Chief Property Right To Job

Stephen Cook was the Fire Chief for the City of Jackson, Georgia. Three years after Cook became Chief, the City adopted a new City Charter that specifically provided the City could only terminate department heads “for cause.” Two days after the passage of the Charter, the City passed an ordinance adopting a personnel handbook which, contrary to the Charter, allows the City to dismiss “any employee of the City with or without cause.”

Eventually, the City fired Cook, citing his inability to supervise firefighters. Cook brought a lawsuit against the City challenging his termination. The City responded by taking the position that Cook was controlled by the personnel handbook, and was an at-will employee.

A federal court in Georgia agreed with Cook. The Court found that “the City has the power to adopt only clearly reasonable ordinances, resolutions or regulations which are not inconsistent with any Charter provision. Any such Charter provision shall remain in force and effect until amended or repealed. In short, City ordinances which are inconsistent with the City Charter are void.”

Since the City Charter required that Cook could only be terminated for cause, the Court found that Cook had a property right to his job as Fire Chief, and that the City was required to follow due process before terminating Cook. However, the Court also found that the City had, in fact, followed due process. The Court found that the City made Cook aware by a list of concerns dealing with his performance and that it allowed Cook “the opportunity to determine what facts, if any, within his knowledge might be presented in mitigation or denial of the charges. Cook knew exactly why he was terminated, and the City gave him an adequate opportunity to respond to the charges.”

Cook v. City of Jackson, Georgia, 2007 WL 737514 (M.D.Ga. 2007).

This article appears in the May 2007 issue